I don’t like Meryl Streep much. And I often get . . .
See? See? You’re doing it now. You’re giving me the hairy eyeball for daring to admit such a thing to you. Me! One of the few openly honest film fans in the world.
And yes, I know Meryl Streep is a great and talented actress (more on that later). I know all about films such as “Sophie’s Choice” and “Silkwood” and “Ironwood” and all that. She’s a very accomplished performer and no doubt eats all her greens before asking for dessert. I’ll bet she flosses regularly. I fully recognize that the problem lies with me. Films like “Sophie’s Choice” and “Silkwood” are indeed wonderful, and Ms. Streep does put out 110% effort. But I just don’t like the stories being presented or the characters she’s playing. I’m sure that if Streep portrayed Magda Goebbels in a film there’d be roses thrown at her feet, but I sure as hell wouldn’t want to sit through the movie.
(And letting you know it’s not just Streep. For instance, thanks to my son I’ve recently arrived at the realization that “Robinson Crusoe” is a classic piece of literature . . . but there are times when I want to take Daniel Defoe and hold his head beneath the water.)
Okay . . . back to Meryl Streep. I hope we’re clear on the concept that I like Meryl better when she does stories and plays characters which I can easily get into. And, happily enough, as she gets older she seems to be finding less and less of a problem in doing just that. As with Sean Connery she’s developing into a performer who’s becoming more interesting the older she gets.
So here’s the key question: “Uncle Mikey . . . what are the Meryl Streep films that make you happy?”
Well, Pumpkins, I’m so glad you asked.
“Out of Africa” (1985) — actually, in my heart of hearts, I almost wish I could find another example. But this still remains the first Meryl Streep film I’ve been able to sit through more than once. One reason is that it’s a Sydney Pollack film, and I would’ve watched Pollack follow elephants in a circus parade with a shovel, he was that talented. Then there’s the gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous David Watkin cinematography (one of the few times I’ve unreservedly agreed with the fossilized hags running AMPAS was when they gave Watkin the Oscar for his work here, as well as tossing one into Pollack’s lap). Rounding out the hat trick (at least for me) was yet another rich soundtrack courtesy of John Barry (oops! Look . . . another Oscar).
The film also has some wonderful moments featuring Streep. Practically every scene she has with Klaus Maria Brandauer or Michael Gough or Malick Bowens or Suzanna Hamilton sparkles and makes me want to scrunch up closer to the screen. There’s a particularly excellent sequence where Streep (playing Danish author Karen Blixen) is obliged to carry a shipment of supplies across the African wilderness to some troops during World War I. During the arduous trip she quietly confides to Malick Bowens (playing Farah, Blixen’s African manservant) that she may have gotten them all lost. “God is great, msabu”, Bowens replies, and one presumes that the only reason Streep didn’t get the Oscar for her work here was because she didn’t follow her automatic instinct to reach over and punch Bowens’ lights out for that piece of utterly useless advice.
If I have a problem with “Out of Africa” then it can be summed up in two words.
You know how you see some people together and you want to yell out “Get a room!”? Every time I see Streep and Redford together in this film I want to yell “Get another continent!”. As a romantically involved couple they demonstrate all the onscreen passion of tapioca. Jackie Gleason demonstrated more love threatening to send Audrey Meadows to the Moon.
I know some of you out there feel Redford is a brilliant actor. Even I will agree that he is occasionally capable of delivering a memorable line or two (although this usually requires having Paul Newman somewhere in the immediate vicinity). Once again it’s just me when I say that, in “Out of Africa”, Redford is a crashing bore!
(What? No, I don’t get invited to Hollywood parties. Why do you ask?)
“A Prairie Home Companion” (2006) — this is the most genuinely special film on the list as far as I’m concerned. Not only does it contain another favorite Streep role, but it’s one of two films featuring Lindsay Lohan (the other being “Georgia Rule”) that I can watch without voiding the contents of my stomach all over the carpeting. As with “Out of Africa” it’s directed by another favorite director (Robert Altman, this being his final film) and I find it a watchable ensemble comedy featuring people like Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline, L.Q. Jones, Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Virginia Madsen . . . plus it opens and ends in Mickey’s Diner in St. Paul, Minnesota (I mean it just doesn’t get better than this).
Having something of a personal history with radio myself gives this film even more resonance with me, and I smile seeing Garrison Keillor and crew going through the mechanics of assembling a show and getting it out to the audience. The plot is rather thin, but the strength of ensemble productions lies with the overlapping action between the characters, and everyone in this movie look as if they’re having a world of fun. Particularly Streep (here playing one half of the surviving members of a family country music act). Whether acting out the role of the jilted lover disappointed in romance by Keillor’s character (and demonstrating perhaps the most defiant set of hips in film history), or engaged in nostalgic banter with Lily Tomlin (playing her sister), Streep delivers a warmly comfortable performance. With such a large cast it’s sometimes a race to be noticeable, but Streep makes it look so easy.
“Julie and Julia” (2009) — back in 2002 Julie Powell . . . up to then a faceless New York City cubicle drone . . . decided to begin a blog detailing her efforts to work her way through all the recipes in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”. This led to widespread notoriety and a career as an author.
(By the way, my e-mail address is at the bottom of the page. Just thought you’d want to know.)
In 2009 Nora Ephron (in what would be her last project . . . among other things, Streep is developing an eerie tendency to be in a director’s last film) decided to make a fictional account of Powell’s efforts. Even better, Ephron mixes Powell’s story with a look into Julia Child’s life, and especially her development into a world famous chef. Even much better, Meryl Streep got the role of Child.
Until I finally get around to seeing “The Iron Lady” and making a decision, Streep’s performance in this film will stand out as my personal favorite. She has always acted in her roles before, but here she is truly and genuinely A*C*T*I*N*G . . . becoming Julia Child so flawlessly that you’d want her to make breakfast. Based on a personal memoir (and Powell’s own writing), Streep shows us more than what audiences found in Child’s cookbooks and on “The French Chef”. Streep fills her portrayal of Child with life and realism and complexity, connecting to the audience with little more than a glance or a gesture.
And Cute! Above all Streep is so irresistably cute in this film. I usually have a problem with “cuteness” in movies (especially when in the hands of Steven Spielberg), but a good part of my admiration for this film comes from Streep managing to produce such a sympathetic sweetness that I want to wrap her up and take her home. The on-screen chemistry she develops with Stanley Tucci (playing Child’s husband Paul) emphasizes just how hollow and soulless her role with Redford was in “Out of Africa”. Streep and Tucci manage to fully convince me that they’re a passionately devoted couple (any actress who can apparently blush on cue rates sincere applause from This Commentator), and watching them together makes up for not being able to reach through the screen and grab the food that’s being cooked.
To be fair I should also mention Amy Adams (who seems to be everywhere these days) and Chris Messina as Julie and Eric Powell (supposedly meant to suggest the modern version of Julia and Paul). Seeing as how Julie Powell was born in Austin, Texas, I automatically presume she is possessed of mental and spiritual capabilities far above those of mortal man. Despite this clear advantage, however, and as good as Adams and Messina are, one cannot escape two very important facts. First, Adams and Messina are portraying the Powells as yet another pair of young modern married American drones . . . which means a few cute moments but, overall, possessing no more depth than one would find in an episode of “Jersey Shore”. Second, and more significantly, Adams and Messina are competing alongside Streep and Tucci for the audience’s attention and, as hard as they try, in this instance they’re still plowboys drawing on fast guns! I may get booed on this but I would’ve been just as happy if Ephron had cut “Julie” from the title and had just given us “Julia”.
And speaking of 2009 . . .
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” — oh yes! Here we go. With more and more “name” actors doing voice work for animated films, it’s good to see Streep throwing her hat into the ring. And especially in a nicely quirky piece like this production from the nicely quirky Wes Anderson. The film which made apple cider and bandit hats fashionable.
Based on a novel by Roald Dahl, the film actually comes off as an animated version of one of Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean” films. The fact that George Clooney provided the voice for the title character was, I’m certain, no genuine accident. But instead of Brad Pitt, Bernie Mac, Elliott Gould, Matt Damon and the others, Anderson gives us Jason Schwartzman, Willem Dafoe, Bill Murray, Adrien Brody . . . and Streep as Felicity Fox (“possibly the best landscape painter working on the scene today”). The animation style falls somewhere into the spectrum between the efforts of Pixar and Ardmore and, along with the various touches of dry visual wit thrown in, almost succeed in making this movie too hip for the room (which I don’t personally account against it, preferring to see animated features strive for greater sophistication in terms of plot and execution).
As in “A Prairie Home Companion” Streep finds herself in yet another ensemble feature, and getting her talent across only through her voice provides a greater than average challenge. But Anderson gathered together a talented crew of animators (including Dan Alderson and the team that worked on Burton’s “Corpse Bride”) who toiled to give the figures not only life but individualty. Combined with Streep’s voice, Felicity Fox is a firm but compassionate wife and mother who tolerates neither fools, flirtatious psychotic rats or the shenanigans of her husband. In one scene the Fox Family finds itself at a low point in their fortunes because of one of Foxy’s schemes, and Felicity requests a personal audience with her husband. Streep’s clipped tone of delivery . . . combined with the expression produced by the animators . . . causes long-time married men to squirm in their seats and think “uh oh” (a feeling confirmed when, moments later, Felicity slashes out at Foxy’s face). Streep and Clooney don’t manage the onscreen heat generated by Streep and Tucci in “Julie and Julia”, but it’s apples and oranges. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” isn’t so much designed to deliver passion but, rather, a witty and gently madcap comedy working for grins instead of sighs.
And I’m not cussin’ with you. Enjoy the Movies!